Tuesday, 24 May 2016

'Asking For It' by Louise O'Neill

*This review will contain spoilers!*
"That's not how it happened." She stares up at me. "I told you what happened."
"But I wasn't there with you, was I? How do I know what really - "
"But I told you. I didn't want... I didn't want to."
"You didn't say no."
"I didn't say yes either."
Unless you've been living under a rock for the past year, you will have heard of this book. After the runaway success of Louise O'Neill's debut novel, 'Only Ever Yours', her sophomore novel had everyone waiting with bated breath to see whether she could pull it out of the bag once more.
If you haven't guessed by the title of the novel or by the quote above, this is a book tackling the subject of rape; if you're sensitive to this issue and will feel uncomfortable reading this review, please look away now...

Emma O'Donovan is your stereotypical queen bee. She's beautiful and she knows it, and her best friends - Ali, Maggie and Jamie - know it too; Emma turns heads wherever she goes and is never lacking male attention. It causes some tension in their group of friends, particularly because Ali has a huge crush on local footballer Sean and he's attracted to Emma, often acting as though Ali doesn't even exist.
Despite Emma's beauty, she's popular too. She's very two-faced, acting sweet and sincere to someone's face and rolling her eyes as soon as their back is turned; she knows how to play people.
'I imagine them whispering to themselves once I'm out of earshot about how nice I am, how genuine, how I always seem to have time for everybody, how it's amazing that I can still be so down to earth when I look the way I do.
By the time final bell rings, I am exhausted. I have to smile and be nice and look like I care about other people's problems or else I'll get called a bitch.
People don't understand how tiring it is to have to put on this performance all day.' 
When she sets her eye on Jack Dineen, the breakout star of the football team, her friends know that Jack isn't safe; Emma O'Donovan always gets what she wants. Sean's throwing a big party to celebrate the game, and Emma insists they all go: Ali's excited because she might finally get a chance to grab his attention, but Jamie doesn't want to. Dylan (another member of the football team and the guy everyone thinks Jamie slept with last year) will be there, and she doesn't want to put herself in that situation, but Emma doesn't give her a choice.
On the night of the party it's pre-drinks at Emma's house. Jamie turns up drunk, so Emma takes lots of shots to try to deal with her irritating behaviour. Conor, her childhood friend and neighbour, tries to stop her - he's had feelings for her for years and would do anything to protect her - but she pushes him away; he's not the one she wants.
Things go from bad to worse when they arrive at Sean's. The living room has been hotboxed: Emma decides she needs some weed, because alcohol isn't doing enough. It's not like it's the first time she's taken drugs. She's wearing a gorgeous dress, slinky and black and cut down to her belly button, so it doesn't take long to catch Jack's eye... But then Ali's dragging her away because Jamie's being sick and she needs Emma's help.
She gets Jamie a lift home, but when she returns Jack's got his hands all over Mia, a fifteen-year-old friend of Sean's younger sister. Emma is furious. She's Emma O'Donovan, how could anyone resist her? She tries to make Jack jealous by flirting with Paul, one of the more well-known members of the football team, and Paul offers her drugs; she's fed up with people thinking she's predictable and boring, so she doesn't hesitate.
The MDMA hits, and Emma throws herself at Eli and then kisses Conor. She still wants to make Jack jealous and she knows Conor won't make anyone jealous, so she drags Paul off to Sean's parent's bedroom. She comes to her senses, deciding she doesn't want to have sex with Paul after all, but he forces her and she grins and bears it: the more it looks like she's enjoying it, the quicker it will be over.
Sean, Dylan and Emma's other friend Fitzy walk in just after they've finished and start doling out prescription medication; the combination of drugs and alcohol take effect and Emma blacks out...
The next day is a painful blur. Emma's parents find her on the doorstep burning in the sun; Ballinatoom is in the middle of a heatwave, and Emma's always had extremely sensitive skin. She can't remember how she got home and she can't stand up without being sick, but her mother's convinced it can only be sunstroke. There's no way her good girl would do anything stupid.
However, on her return to school on Monday all eyes are on her, and not in the normally appreciative way. She wonders if it might be the sunburn - everyone's so used to seeing her looking perfect, they just can't believe she'd have such dreadful luck! - but when the snickers and whispers start and her friends won't let her sit with them, she's certain there's something more malicious going on. When she confronts the group Maggie is spitting mad: Emma kissed her boyfriend, and she knew Ali liked Sean, so how dare she sleep with him? Emma's confused, protesting her innocence. She slept with Paul, not Sean! Where would anyone get that idea from?
But the proof has been posted all over Facebook. A page titled 'Easy Emma', filled to the brim with pictures of her in various states of nudity. Paul, Dylan and Sean all having their way with her. Sean being sick on her, Dylan pissing on her, and thousands of likes and comments below:
"Some people deserve to get pissed on."
It's true that she can't remember a lot of Saturday night, but there's no way she was that word. That word can't apply to her. She's Emma O'Donovan and no one takes advantage of her, no one abuses her, no one forces her to do things she doesn't want to do. She brushes it off, claiming that she was just pretending to be passed out in the photos, that it was supposed to be funny. But she can't get the images out of her head (pink flesh) (spread legs) and her brother Bryan convinces her to change her statement, and to tell the truth; she cannot remember the evening, and she didn't consent.

The story then jumps forward a year.
Emma's refusing to go to school, struggling to eat, and is under careful monitoring following two suicide attempts. The Ballinatoom case is worldwide news; her identity has stayed concealed, but everyone knows her story and what happened to her. #IBelieveBallinatoomGirl has been trending for weeks, but the support in her local area is all for the boys who raped her.
The likelihood is that the case is going to go to court, but it could take up to two years for it to get there, and when it starts the case could last more than two weeks. Emma's fed up with all eyes being on her:
'I had liked it before. I had encouraged them. (Maybe I had been asking for it).'
And she really just wants it to be over. Everyone is covering the case: local newspapers, The Late Late Show, radio broadcasts... Every single person has an opinion about what happened to her and an astounding amount of them agree: she was asking for it. She was wearing a low-cut short dress, she'd been drinking alcohol and had taken illegal drugs, and she was known locally for her promiscuity. What else could she expect?

It's taken me a few days to get around to writing this review, because 'Asking For It' is an emotionally draining read, and I needed a bit of distance before I felt able to revisit it. I'd originally given it five stars - it was a 4.5 that I decided to round up - but thinking about it over the last few days I've had to drop it down to four because there's just too much that isn't dealt with for it to feel like a completed novel.
This is the first book of Louise O'Neill's that I've read. Considering she only has two it's not that surprising, but 'Only Ever Yours' was one of the biggest releases of 2014; I should have picked it up by now. Because I hadn't experienced her writing before I hadn't expected to be so utterly absorbed. A book of this size (around 350 pages) would normally take me two solid days of reading, but I completed 'Asking For It' in one.
The thing that grabbed my attention was Emma being such a hateful character. As soon as she's introduced you can't help but dislike her; her self-absorbed attitude and her disregard for her friends make you want to slap her in the face. But no matter how horrible she is she doesn't deserve what happens to her - no one does! - and it completely changes your response to the character. As a reader, we can't help but feel sorry for her because we experience her inner turmoil and her struggle to come to terms with what she went through.
However, because of who she is, the characters are split in their opinions: the majority of them support the boys because of Emma's reputation. This wouldn't have worked if she'd been the quiet nerd, or the shy girl-next-door; Emma needed to be the queen bee to accurately portray societies response.
If you haven't heard of the Steubenville case I'll be surprised. Back in 2012, a high school student was assaulted at a party by multiple of her peers; the reason it became so high profile was due to them taking pictures of the assault and posting them all over various social media sites. It's obvious that Louise O'Neill has taken inspiration from that real life event, but by making Emma 18 - above the legal age for consent - and by setting the story in Ireland, it adds many more layers to the story. Ireland is well-known for its conservative attitudes, being one of the places that abortion is still illegal, so it was the perfect setting to explore reactions.
The issue that I have with this book is that it feels incomplete. There's a lot of debate regarding rape and slut shaming, both of which are very relevant topics, so it opens up the possibility of discussing the issues more as a society. A book like this being so well-known can be nothing but a good thing, because it will likely leading to a shift in outdated and harmful attitudes towards victims. Because Emma is promiscuous, people imply that she deserved what she got or that she probably enjoyed it anyway: this shines a light upon the fact that you need to give consent every time you sleep with someone. Just because you sleep around, doesn't mean everyone is entitled to a slice of your cake; you still need to agree to cut them a piece.
This book should also be able to help alter opinions about women as a whole:
"Girls are all the same," Dylan says, rolling his eyes. "Get wasted and get a bit slutty, then in the morning try and pretend it never happened because you regret it."
As a patriarchal society, men blame women any time that their reputations are ruined (e.g. it's not the man's fault he had an affair, it's the woman's fault for tempting him) and it's normally accepted, leading to the woman shouldering all of the blame. That definitely needs to be addressed. Emma keeps thinking to herself that she doesn't want to ruin their lives, but they should have thought about that before they raped her.
But other than the debates and sociological discussion starting points, the second half of the novel feels a little bare. Emma is trying to deal with what happened to her, but because she's struggling she pushes everyone away; all of the well-crafted characters that we were introduced to in the first half of the book don't really exist in the second.
As shown by the quote at the top of this review, Jamie had also been raped and after she confided in Emma she encouraged her to keep it a secret; it would have been fascinating to see their responses to each other after the accusations came to light, but they don't interact on the page again.
The ending of the book is extremely ambiguous: Emma withdraws her complaint, but it's possible that the Director of Public Prosecutions will still take it to trial on behalf of the state. Emma's mother gets a phone call and she calls Emma downstairs... That's where it finishes. If I knew there was going to be a sequel this would make a lot of sense, because it would be a wonderful cliffhanger to anticipate the resolution to - instead it just seems disconnected, and compared to the rest of the book it's disappointing.
I can understand why Louise chose to tell it in that way: rape convictions are often low, so going to a trial would likely end unhappily; if the DPP chose not to take it to trial the boys would have gotten away with it, which would also end unhappily. I just would have preferred a bit more closure, but that's my personal preference.
After the emotional rollercoaster of this book I'm not sure how long it will take me to get around to reading 'Only Ever Yours', but I do appreciate the fact that Louise O'Neill is not afraid to tackle contemporary issues that have a lot of tense discussion surrounding them. If you're a teenager - male or female - I would highly recommend reading this and thinking long and hard about your reactions to people; it's time we all stop judging each other and start letting people live their lives how they want to, without fear of repercussion.

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